Don Rickles and Death
Limon, John, Michigan Quarterly Review
I am in Oxford, Mississippi, to address the Yoknapatawpha Society. It is the middle of July, boiling, inescapably the South. My host, who like several of the top Faulknerians at the conference seems to know every last utterance of the great man, is taking me out to a catfish dinner. I have assumed that he is a Southerner.
He is talking to me about my book on standup comedy; he wonders why I did not go deeper into the history of Jewish humor, starting in the Bible. I am happy to concede my historical limits, though his estimation of the humor of the Old Testament is higher than mine. Then, somehow, perhaps as another question about what I omitted, the comedian Don Rickles comes up. My host has never gotten over something Rickles once said to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. I cannot, here, reproduce exactly what he quotes Rickles as saying, except for the last four words. Something like this: "Johnny, you're a big man on television. You've got the big ratings. What's your competition? A nature show on PBS-'The Zebras are Dead!'"
By the time my host gets to the title of the nominal documentary, I know what he is about to say. I almost recite the words, "The Zebras are Dead," on top of his. I hold back to allow him his sudden glory. But I still have the urge to demonstrate my clairvoyance. So I bring this out: "I can tell you the moment, give or take a year, that you saw that: 1966."
"No," he replies to my chagrin, placing the memory, against the timeline of his romantic or connubial life, at a much later date. But I know that Rickles had to have spoken the memorable words around 1966, because I had experienced, at the time, watching the show, a thoroughly convulsed reaction to them myself; and when, a few days later, I went to my friend's house to work on our satirical junior high magazine, which lasted from around 1964 to around 1966, I plagiarized the phrase, imposing it upon a humor piece who knows how. And my friends, hearing it, also fell into an astonished hysteria.
Rickles made his first Tonight Show appearance in 1965. He had to have uttered these words around 1966. My host-I work this out in his presence-must have caught the show on a "Best of Carson" rerun. I am disappointed not to have mystified him by announcing with almost magical precision when he had seen a minute fragment of comedy that he had believed to be his own eccentric memory, part of his own peculiar sensibility, for a third of a century.
It finally reaches consciousness that my host is Jewish. Most of the time, I do not register at a glance who is Jewish and who is not. I hardly know that I am a Jew, and when it comes to me, it appears as just another bothersome oddity, like the sound of my voice. When I heard the most famous canard of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that Jews drink the blood of gentile children for Passover, my first thought was that, at last, I was in possession of a historical truth, for I had never quaffed gentile blood on any holiday. My second thought, however, was that even in this egregious case, I couldn't be sure, because nobody ever tells me anything.
And yet-Don Rickles knows everybody's ethnicity at once, it's the essence of his act, and I respond to Rickles. Furthermore, I seem to think that I glimpse (it's just that attenuated) something in Rickles. I can't begin to plumb what it is that I recognize. My family never passed through Rickles's New York; we are repressed, law-abiding, mainly conformist, a different kind of Jew altogether. There are, so far as I can tell, no vulgar, angry, loud-mouthed relatives. We aren't exceptionally funny. My name is pronounced Lyman, and once the wife of the headmaster of my Harvard dorm, Mrs. F. Skiddy Von Stade, wondered if I was a "Boston Lyman." It is just possible that she was serious.
Yet "The Zebras are Dead" immediately called to me, interpellated me, with a kind of rudeness that seemed mysteriously identifying. …